Saturday, August 6, 2022

Frederic Goode Celebrates the British Invasion in 1965's Go Go Mania AKA Pop Gear

GO GO MANIA aka POP GEAR
(Frederick Goode, UK, 1965, unrated, 70 minutes) 

In England, Frederic Goode's celebration of the British Invasion played in theaters as Pop Gear. That title appears throughout the film, though the term "go-go" never does. Clocking in at a little over an hour, it's a fun, variety show-style feature for fans of the UK pop scene, circa 1965. 

Looking like a cross between Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman with his long, wavy hair and Black Watch plaid suit, Jimmy Savile, the host of Top of the Pops, provides snappy introductions for all of the acts, but not all of the songs. Some perform only one selection, while others perform more. 

The film begins and ends with footage of the Beatles from their famous Royal Command Performance at London's Prince of Wales Theatre in 1964. This iteration of the quartet had graduated from the leather-clad Liverpudlians who made their mark at the Cavern Club to well-scrubbed London lads well on their way to world domination. Throughout energetic performances of "She Loves You" and "Twist and Shout," the mostly-female audience screams, cries, and doesn't let up for a second. It's not hard to understand why the Beatles would retire from touring just two years later. 

With the aid of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret, Tess), Goode shot the rest of the performances pop-video style with acts miming to their singles on sets designed to reflect the lyrics, like a dirt road for the Nashville Teens' stomping cover of John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road." 

At three intervals, dancers burst on to the scene to provide some fast-paced movement. While the men are clad primarily in fitted suits and skinny ties, the women are clad in colorful dresses or ballet-like ensembles comprised of leotard tops and gold lamé stretch pants. It's dated in the best of ways.  

As music journalist Brian Reesman and songwriter Jeff Slate note in their entertainingly chatty commentary track, Brian Epstein managed many of these acts, notably the Beatles, so there was a lot of synergy at work. 

Highlights include the Animals with "The House of the Rising Sun," Peter and Gordon with "A World without Love,” and Herman's Hermits with "I'm into Something Good." Notable performers include the Honeycombs' swinging female drummer, Honey Lantree, the only woman instrumentalist in the entire  program, and the members of Sounds Incorporated, an Epstein-managed act, who hop up and down during their zippy rendition of the William Tell Overture. 

In this sort of Hullaballoo context, the ballads--"Walk Away," "For Mama," and "Pop Gear"--from the likes of Matt Monro (best known for his themes to From Russia with Love and Born Free) don't fare as well, since they slow down the pace, not least because he's lip-syncing rather than singing. 

Sadly, Jimmy Savile's presence casts a shadow over the entire enterprise due to long-term allegations of sexual abuse that became public after his passing in 2011. Though it has no bearing on the musicians, some of whom are still performing in 2022, it's impossible to completely overlook.  


Go Go Mania aka Pop Gear is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital through Kino Lorber's KL Studio Classics and Kino Now. Images from Cinema Crazed (vintage poster), Kino Lorber (the Beatles), and Mubi (the Animals).

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Running and Gunning with Larry Cohen in the 1970s New York of God Told Me To

GOD TOLD ME TO
(Larry Cohen, US, 1976, 91 minutes) 

"I miss the pictures that he made. I miss his spirit. And I miss the spirit of the times, which we can truly say was the renegade spirit."

Writer, director, and raconteur Larry Cohen, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 82, was known for his run and gun style of filmmaking. He was the kind of director who shot so quickly and efficiently that he could get around the permits necessary for filming in large urban centers, like New York City. 

That's exactly how he shot 1976's God Told Me To, which incorporates real-life footage from the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan and the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy (against Cohen's wishes, Roger Corman's New World Pictures released the film as The Demon in some markets). 

In his 2003 commentary track on the new Blu-ray, Cohen tells Blue Underground CEO Bill Lustig any number of colorful stories about the making of the film (King Cohen director Steve Mitchell and horror writer Troy Howarth handle the second track). It doesn't hurt that these two have known each other for decades, since Cohen wrote all three of Lustig's Maniac Cop movies. He also wrote Lustig's last film, 1996's Uncle Sam

For Cohen's fifth feature, he tapped handsome, brooding Robert Forster, who had made such a vivid impression in Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, to play the lead. 

Had Forster stuck around, the film would have had an entirely different vibe, but alas, the actor couldn't stop chewing gum! Even after Cohen told him, repeatedly, to spit it out, Forster would pretend that he had--and then start chewing again. He had been warned, and so Cohen fired him. 

For the record, Forster has claimed that he quit because Cohen wouldn't stop yelling at him. Nonetheless, they would reconnect in the years to come, hit it off, and work together in Cohen's final directorial effort, Original Gangstas, with Forster's Jackie Brown costar, Pam Grier. As Cohen notes, the Forster of 1996 was no longer the arrogant fellow of old. 

To replace him, he found an actor even better suited for the part of a devout Catholic detective investigating a series of faith-based murders: Tony Lo Bianco, a compact fellow with a grave countenance. He had appeared, to memorable effect, in William Friedkin's The French Connection and Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers (which was partly directed by Scorsese).

Lo Bianco's origins recalled those of his contemporary, Al Pacino, another Italian-American outer-borough actor who divided his time between the stage and the screen, except Lo Bianco wouldn't hit the same heights. Early on, he got typecast as a gangster, and his subsequent career consists primarily of TV movies and low-budget crime pictures. Now 85, he possesses the same kind of stick-to-it-iveness as Pacino, since he's still working. 

God Told Me To starts out like a crime procedural in the vein of early-career Friedkin or Sidney Lumet before segueing into something pulpier (notably, Lo Bianco had appeared briefly in Lumet's Serpico three years earlier). 

Initially, Peter Nicholas sets out to determine why several New Yorkers, including a cop and a family man, have turned into killing machines without apparent motivation. In each instance, they look the detective in the eye and state, "God told me to," before taking their own lives, but just exactly what God are they referring to and why would he make such a request? 

Cohen opens with a sniper (A Chorus Line's Samuel Williams) on a water tower--the same water tower that appears in his 1973 Black Caesar sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. I couldn't say whether he was inspired by Charles Whitman's 1966 shooting rampage at the University of Texas, but it's the first thing that came to mind, not least because I had just watched Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 Whitman-inspired debut, Targets, a few weeks ago. 

The next massacre erupts during the St. Patrick's Day parade when Andy Kaufman's cop goes on a killing spree. It would mark the future Taxi star's film debut, and he makes one hell of an impression. Cohen had caught one of the young comedian's gigs, and decided that he had to work with him.

Ironically, the audience, as Cohen remembers, had booed Kaufman's anti-comedy routine, but he loved it, accurately predicting that stardom was his for the taking. The two would stay in touch until Kaufman's death from lung cancer less than a decade later. He was only 35. 

Nicholas next questions a man (Robert Drivas) who woke up, threw on a robe, and slaughtered his family. The man betrays no emotion whatsoever as he calmly answers Nicholas's questions. The detective is so unnerved that associates have to pull him off the guy lest he throttle him to death. 

Any cop would be rattled by these encounters, but Nicholas has other reasons for reacting the way he does, since the investigation leads him to reconstruct his adoption history, culminating in a showdown with his birth mother (a terrific Sylvia Sidney, who had worked with Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s) about the father he never knew. In the process, the film segues from procedural to sci-fi weirdness. Though Nicholas doesn't start out as a killer, he turns out to have something in common with the killers, and the more he learns, the more dangerous he becomes. 

Not all of this plays out as effectively as it could, since Cohen loses some control over his material as the revelations accumulate--fitting, since the revelations cause his protagonist to lose control--but Lo Bianco makes for a consistently strong, compelling lead (you'd never know he was starring in a play and auditioning for parts during the shoot). Another standout: Sandy Dennis (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) as Nicholas's wife, a more effective foil than the comparatively anodyne Deborah Raffin as his girlfriend. 

Although God Told Me To doesn't examine religious fervor--particularly the Christian variant--as rigorously as I had hoped, it confirms Cohen's frustration with those who insist on inflicting their religious beliefs on others (though he grew up in a Jewish household, I have no idea if he was observant). As Mike Kellin's Deputy Commissioner states, in words as relevant today as they were then, "People who are too goddamned religious make a lot of trouble for everybody."

Prior to God Told Me To, I had only seen one Cohen-directed film, 1982's Q: The Winged Serpent, so I set out to watch his first four features to see how they might have predicted or led to his fifth. I also watched 1985's The Stuff, because why not? Though it wasn't a hit at the time, it's one of his most purely entertaining efforts with its unflappable-kid lead, catchy jingle, and colorful commercials. The low budget shows in the primitive digital effects, but it ranks among the finest horror comedies of the 1980s, highlighted by a go-for-broke performance from the late Paul Sorvino as a militia man who saves the day--a plot development that wouldn't work quite so well in our post-millennial era of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.  

With Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, both released in 1973, Cohen put his stamp on the blaxploitation genre. If former pro football player Fred "The Hammer" Williamson isn't as skilled of an actor as Lo Bianco or Sorvino, he's a bold and charismatic one who could rock the hell out of a fitted suit. 

Though I wouldn't describe Larry Cohen as a misogynist, he does Bond Girl Gloria Hendry dirty in this duo, the sequel above all. There's no reason Black women should only play likable love interests, but he takes a rather sadistic approach to Helen. 

Though these films were intended for the grind house circuit, it isn't hard to imagine mostly-male audiences booing whenever Helen makes an appearance--and then cheering when Williamson's Tommy sexually assaults her and then snatches her children away. Not to give too much away, but things don't end well. (I had no such qualms with the Dennis and Raffin characters in God Told Me To.) All told, though, the action is good fun and Cohen finagled some top-flight Black musicians: the immortal James Brown for Black Caesar and Edwin Starr and Fonce Mizell for Hell Up in Harlem

Similarly, the music throughout Cohen's entire 1970s output transcends its B-movie surroundings, since Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound) scored 1977's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) scored 1974's It's Alive, another high point in Cohen's filmography with a sympathetic turn from John P. Ryan (Runaway Train) as a father trying to square the circle between love for his infant son, unalloyed fear, and concern that the little guy will rip the whole town to shreds if he isn't stopped. 

After It's Alive, Herrmann scored Cohen-admirer Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver. His classy, orchestral scores elevate both films considerably. Though Herrmann had agreed to score God Told Me To, he died a mere 15 hours after screening the film. BBC stalwart Frank Cordell would step in with a score that nicely recalls Herrmann's work. 

Of the Cohen films I've seen, I would be hard pressed to declare God Told Me To his best--I'm also partial to Bone and It's Alive--but it's certainly a contender, thanks largely to Lo Bianco's performance and a chilling ending that I should've seen coming, but didn't. If we're meant to take it literally, Cohen concludes that God doesn't exist. Or that God is an alien (he has cited Erich von Däniken's bestseller Chariots of the Gods as an inspiration). 

One way or the other, it's an enduring human impulse: to use God as an excuse to commit heinous acts. That isn't fiction, it's fact. Larry Cohen just found a fantastical way to depict the phenomenon, and yet he was enough of a realist to conclude with an explanation rather than a solution. 

Much like the mutant baby in It’s Alive, the God in this film isn't indestructible, but nor is he the only one of his kind. And if there can be two Gods eager to bend mankind to their will, well, there could easily be more. 


God Told Me To is available on a two-disc 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray through Blue Underground. It’s available to stream through several digital play operators including Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube. 

Images: New World Pictures / Horror Geek Life (Tony Lo Bianco), Film Affinity (Demon poster), The Criterion Collection (Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers), DVD Beaver (Sandy Dennis), Harlem World Magazine (Fred Williamson), and Horror Obsessive (Lo Bianco).

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Jordan Peele's Nope and the Buck and the Preacher Poster on the Ranch House Wall

NOPE 
(Jordan Peele, US, 2022, 131 minutes) 

Like Jordan Peele's first two films, Nope is filled with signs and signifiers. 

Many viewers will probably miss one in particular, simply because it only makes a brief appearance in the background: a poster for Sidney Poitier's 1972 directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, a rare Black western made at a time when African-American actors and filmmakers were more frequently associated with blaxploitation films and social problem pictures. 

The poster doesn't just confirm that Nope is a Black western--with sci-fi and horror elements--but that Peele, like the multi-talented Poitier, is his own man. It's understandable when actor-turned-directors engage in fan service. It's a great way to please their base and put food on the table, but Nope is even less of a sop to the punters who made his first film, Get Out, a deserved hit than Us, a harder-to-pigeonhole proposition that pleased critics more than general audiences. I predict a similar fate for Nope

If Peele's third feature has the moody lighting, spooky music, and jump scares associated with horror, it isn't a horror movie in the conventional sense. If anything, a lot of the horror moves are fake-outs. Not to give too much away, but some of the scariest moments turn out to be pranks. 

The Buck and the Preacher poster also suggests something more specific: that Otis Haywood (the invaluable, if underused Keith David), a horse wrangler, may have worked on the film. 

Considering that he would've been a teenager in 1972, it's even more likely that his father or grandfather worked on it, because Nope centers on a multi-generational family of Hollywood horse wranglers, the kind of behind-the-scenes players who help bring movies, TV shows, and even commercials to life with little fanfare for their efforts. 

If Netflix's The Harder They Fall recreated the Black western as something cool and sexy--to mixed results--Nope takes a less stylized approach to the work of the Haywood clan. Rather than looters and shooters, they're experts at a legitimate craft. 
 
After Otis meets his maker, due to a freak atmospheric event--which will become freakier and more frequent as the film gathers speed--Otis "O.J." Haywood, Jr. (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, who won an Oscar since he last worked with Peele) has taken over the family business. He may know horses, but the unfortunately-named O.J. has less of a head for business. 

This state of affairs sets the scene for the events to come. With bills to pay, and insufficient paychecks to keep up with them, O.J. has been selling off horses for ready cash. He aims to earn enough to buy them back, but he can't do it on his own, since his vape-happy sister, Emerald (Hustlers' Keke Palmer, the firecracker this somewhat slack-paced film needs), prefers to promote her own projects over getting her hands dirty with wrangling. 
 
O.J. finds one revenue stream in actor-turned-theme park impresario Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yuen, last seen as another dedicated patriarch in Minari) who has a need for trained horses. The two share a connection to Hollywood through Jupe's participation in an Indiana Jones-type action-adventure movie and a '90s sitcom about an all-American family and their pet chimp, Buddy. 

Jupe's acting career came to an end when the chimp went nuts on the set, violently attacking the cast (chimp madness aside, Jupe appears to have been inspired by Ke Huy Quan of Everything Everywhere All at Once). 
 
Peele uses sleight-of-hand to depict the bloody devastation. Now Jupe--and his fantastic red Nudie suit--oversees a family business, much like his Haywood neighbors, in which the parents and the kids put on a show revolving around Jupe's encounters with the rumored alien in their midst. 

It's no spoiler to say that fiction will soon become fact. It's through O.J. that Jupe finds out about the UFO. When O.J. first notices it in the airspace above their spread, he tells Emerald, who springs into action with a plan to save the ranch: they'll capture footage of the alien spacecraft--if it is indeed a spacecraft--and sell it to the highest bidder. This leads them to electronics store worker Angel Torres (The OA's Brandon Perea), a bored kid who inserts himself into their scheme, and eccentric cinematographer Antlers Holst (24's Michael Wincott), who provides the camera expertise they lack. 

And that's the gist of the thing, except the Park-Haywood story strands never converge in a satisfying way, and it doesn't help that Jupe proves more dynamic than O.J. Though Kaluuya plays his role exactly as Peele describes it in the production notes, the director appears to have miscalculated to some extent, since O.J. marks Kaluuya’s least engaging performance to date. 
 
I appreciate the contrast between him and his extroverted sister, and O.J.'s ability to control his emotions serves him well once the alien menace closes in, but a summer spectacle, to borrow Peele's term, calls for more colorful characters, like the council dwellers that populate Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, a 2012 sci-fi comedy that cost one-sixth as much as Nope. Though it failed to recoup upon its original release, the film developed a dedicated following on home video, and launched alienslayer John Boyega into the Star Wars stratosphere. 

In addition to Kaluuya’s recessive performance, the new film's pacing feels off. I'm all for slow and steady build-ups in sci-fi scenarios, except the Arrival-type pace feels all wrong for a lighter, more fanciful effort like Nope.

Poitier's Buck and The Preacher, meanwhile, which focused on newly-freed slaves trying to forge new lives for themselves, opens with inter-titles that conclude with the following statement, "This picture is dedicated to those men, women and children who lie in graves as unmarked as their place in history." In focusing on a Black family of Hollywood horse wranglers, Peele has played a part in shedding light on some of the Black and Brown below-the-line talents that have helped to bring his own moviemaking dreams to fruition (just as Mexican-born Buck and the Preacher wrangler José María "Chico" Hernandez helped to bring Poitier’s dreams to fruition). 
 
If Nope doesn't completely work as the summer spectacle Jordan Peele intended, that still seems like a pretty worthy achievement to me.



Nope opens on Friday, July 22. Images from BBC CultureMaja/PinterestUniversal/Teen Vogue, and MoviePosters.com.

Monday, July 4, 2022

On the Sonic Catering and Epicurean Toxicity of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet

FLUX GOURMET  

(Peter Strickland, UK/US/Hungary, 2022, 111 minutes)

For his fifth feature, Flux Gourmet, filmmaker Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy) had originally intended to make a "kid's film" as he told Senses of Cinema contributor John Edmond in 2019. 

The idea was to combine an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm's "The Magic Porridge Pot" with an "entertaining, funny, and strange" exploration of "current attitudes towards food allergies and autoimmune responses." 

And that's what he's done, though I'm not certain why Strickland thought kids would want to see such a thing, since it's very much an adult film, from the references to Greek philosophers to the after-performance orgies. 

The story begins and ends with a journalist or "dossierge" with gastric distress who has been documenting the residency of a collective that creates musical performances using kitchen implements. Being surrounded by the sounds and smells of cooking isn't exactly the ideal assignment for the oddly-named Stones (Suntan's Makis Papadimitriou), but he'll do whatever it takes to see the thing through.

Though the film, which was shot in England, is in English, Stones narrates in Papadimitriou's native Greek. When Strickland told Edmond, "It's actually a very personal film," that may be partly what he meant, since he's of Greek descent, though he grew up in England.

Strickland is also a member of the Sonic Catering Band, a name that will prove both significant and prescient (he includes eight of their staticky tracks on the soundtrack, along with that of other groups, including Tim Gane's Cavern of Anti-Matter, who provided the score for In Fabric). 

Fortunately for Stones, the Sonic Catering Institute (that name!), located in a Yorkshire manor house, keeps a physician on staff. In his off-hours, the dossierge meets with Dr. Glock (In Fabric's Richard Bremmer), an acerbic, tweedy gentleman, ever-present wine glass in hand, who finds Stones's acute reflux and excessive flatulence more amusing than perplexing. 

In addition to documenting their performances, Stones conducts interviews with the members of the collective: Lamina Propria (Attenberg's Ariane Labed, who also hails from Greece), Billy Rubin (Sex Education's Asa Butterfield), and Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, a Hungarian-Romanian theater actress who has appeared in all of Strickland's films since 2009's Katalin Varga). 

In speaking with them, Stones finds that Elle, who favors Victorian-style gowns, rules the roost. Though she claims to love her bandmates, she considers Lamina and Billy eminently replaceable. Lamina, who resembles Kristen Stewart with her bleached hair and pseudo-goth wardrobe, is none too pleased when she overhears that, though she isn't the vindictive type.  

Stones and the collective sleep in the same guesthouse, where he struggles to hide his gastrointestinal troubles, a performance of a kind from a non-performer. The trio's daily routine, which he observes, involves silent morning walks through the verdant grounds and after-dinner speeches in which they reveal their thoughts about sex, food, and gender roles. 

The dossierge reports to the institute's director, Jan Stevens (Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie, another returning In Fabric performer), a statuesque, dramatically dressed woman with equally dramatic makeup, who has been receiving upsetting crank calls from a rejected collective, the Mangrove Snacks, whose terrapin-terrorizing members have been skulking around the grounds after hours. Her black, white, and red outfits will become increasingly baroque as institute tensions grow and accelerate. 

The color red, a Strickland favorite, factors into two of the more disturbing sequences: when Lamina ends up covered in a sticky red substance as the result of a Mangrove Snacks stunt, and when Elle performs, completely naked, while covered in a similar substance as Lamina and Billy crank out industrial noises with blenders and sequencers. In this "abattoir performance," Elle (a vegetarian) plays a pig being prepared for slaughter. 

Jan congratulates the troupe on this Dwarves-like spectacle, but suggests that they drop the flanger. Good idea or bad, Elle has no intention of taking suggestions from an outside party. Jan reminds her that she's funding the residency; at the very least, she deserves to be heard. She's not completely wrong, but nor is Elle. Both will use subterfuge to get their way.  

If you've read any interviews with Strickland, you'll know that he struggles to secure funding for his films, and that he insists on complete artistic control. His side in the debate is clear. That isn't to suggest that he isn't having fun at Elle's expense. She's a control freak and a prima donna, an implication that he shares similar qualities, though I suspect he's more genteel in his interactions with financiers. (In his interview with The Projection Booth, he admits that he had to defend the casting of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, when funders insisted she wasn't sufficiently famous to topline In Fabric).  

As the residency continues, the collective shares insights in their after-dinner speeches about their sexual pasts and proclivities, predicting the encounters to come, one of which appears to draw from Giulio Questi's kinky giallo Death Laid an Egg of which Strickland is an avowed fan (especially of Bruno Maderna's atonal score). Suffice to say: eggs are involved. 

All of these elements, from the tensions between performers to the struggle for artistic expression, converge when Stones' search for a cure becomes part of the performances. In these moments, the film swerves into gross-out comedy. Though Strickland plays with the tropes of horror--blood-like substances, masked figures skulking about the grounds--Flux Gourmet isn't as much of a horror film as Berberian Sound Studio or In Fabric, which may be why some horror aficionados have been left disappointed and confused.   

Though it's strange, even by Strickland's standards, there are precedents, including Věra Chytilová's Daisies, Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and Wakefield Poole's Bible! (another film that Strickland has praised in interviews). 

Nonetheless, I still had to watch Flux Gourmet twice in order to wrap my head around it, something I rarely do, even though I had prepared by reading Strickland, a collection of Senses of Cinema pieces about the filmmaker, and moderated a panel about him at this year's Crypticon. 

As a viewer, I don't feel that it holds together the way that it should, but as an auteurist, I love that it's a Peter Strickland film through and through. The well-judged ending, in which the flatulence-free Stones finally becomes a sort of performance-art star, also plays just as well the second time through.


Flux Gourmet opens at SIFF Cinema on July 8, 2022. Images from Bloody Disgusting (Asa Butterfield, Fatma Mohamed, and Ariane Labed), Artists Partners (Diana Mayo, "The Magic Porridge Pot," aka "Sweet Porridge"), KeeperFacts (Gwendoline Christie and Makis Papadimitriou), Game News 24 (Christie), iHorror (Mohamed), and drfreex (The Devil in Miss Jones star Georgina Spelvin in Wakefield Poole's Bible!).

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Now on Blu-ray: John McNaughton’s 1998 Sunshine Noir-Meets-Erotic Thriller Wild Things

WILD THINGS 
(John McNaughton, 1998, US, 114 minutes) 

Since April, I've been listening to Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast series on "Erotic '80s." So far, she's covered movies like 10, American Gigolo, Body Heat, and Risky Business.  When Longworth wraps up this season, she plans to take a break before returning with "Erotic '90s." I have no idea if she'll cover John McNaughton's 1998 erotic thriller Wild Things when she returns, but I hope she does. 

Granted, the Chicago-born McNaughton didn't start out as a director of erotica. No, he made a name for himself with 1986's disquieting Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which introduced the world to Michael Rooker's uniquely uncharismatic brand of charisma as a matter-of-fact murderer.

I recently revisited McNaughton’s debut after a gap of over 30 years. To my surprise, I found that some of the same crew members, like editor Elena Maganini and producer Steven A. Jones, also worked on Wild Things, among other McNaughton pictures. It's unexpected, because he had specifically intended to make the 1998 movie blatantly commercial. That doesn't describe the grubby, nihilistic, yet subversively funny Henry in the slightest. 

Killers would turn out to be a McNaughton specialty. If they don’t appear in every film or TV show, they appear in quite a few, like 1996's Normal Life, which took inspiration from the lives of ill-fated Chicago bank robbers Jeffrey and Jill Erickson. Wild Things has more reputable-looking characters, but when push comes to shove, several of them end up wielding deadly weapons, from wine bottles to spear guns. 

Men with guns even appear in McNaughton's more lighthearted affairs, like 1993's Mad Dog and Glory, a crime comedy I long avoided due to the off-putting title and problematic premise: mobbed-up club owner and standup Frank (Bill Murray) "gifts" cop Wayne/Mad Dog (Robert De Niro, then 50) young waitress Glory (Uma Thurman, 26) as a thank-you for saving his life. 

The movie turns out to have a lot going for it, like writing from novelist Richard Price (Clockers), a classy score from Elmer Bernstein (Sweet Smell of Success), and burnished cinematography from Robby Müller (To Live and Die in LA), but none of it makes the premise any less problematic. 

Naturally, the cop, who dreams of being a photographer, and the bartender, who once dreamed of being an actress, fall in love. First, they have sex, even though she insists she isn't a sex worker (I'll credit McNaughton for the more-awkwardly-realistic-than-usual sex scenes). Frank claims that he had only intended Glory to be the lonely Wayne's "friend" for a week. 

In the new interview included with Arrow's Wild Things Blu-ray, McNaughton recalls that he needed a hit--Normal Life had come and gone without a trace--so he started by asking himself, "What sells?" The answer: "Sex and violence." The film springs from that basic idea. Granted, he had been down that road before with his previous films, but he really ups the ante here. 

Throughout, McNaughton fucks with the audience, since Stephen Peters' script revolves around situations that aren't what they appear to be, much as in The Usual Suspects. Then, during the closing credits, he shows what actually happened. I pity anyone who left the theater, or stopped the video, without finding out how the characters pulled off their various schemes.

Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon, replacing the unavailable Robert Downey, Jr.), guidance counselor at a tony high school in South Florida, initially seems like a decent guy. Adults respect him and kids can relate to him, but it quickly becomes apparent that he's an incorrigible ladies man. 

It's not just that he had an affair with wealthy widow Sandra Van Ryan (a perfectly cast Theresa Russell), but he spends an inappropriate amount of time with her daughter, Kelly (Denise Richards, fresh from a starring role in Starship Troopers), a smiley, flirty cheerleader who offers to wash his jeep with a similarly-underdressed pal for a school project. McNaughton shoots the soapy sequence like a cross between a hair metal video--think Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again"--and a skin flick. 

Granted, Sam fends off her advances in favor of an age-appropriate socialite who frequents the Blue Bay country club, but then Kelly accuses him of rape, and the noirish plot kicks into gear. Did he do it, or is she lying? If so, is she jealous of Sandra, who still lusts for Sam, or of his current squeeze? 

McNaughton doesn't let anyone off the hook. Any character could be lying at any time. It's to the cast's credit that they play it straight. There's no winking at the audience, but there's no way the actors didn't notice the ridiculousness, because there are twists on top of twists on top of twists. 

After Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell in goth-punk mode) also accuses Sam of rape, he ends up in jail, but then she tells a different story on the witness stand. The new narrative makes Kelly look like a liar, but it's too late for Sam to get his job, home, girlfriend, and reputation back (and even if his girlfriend wanted to keep seeing him, her judgmental attorney father, played by an intimidating Robert Wagner, wouldn't let her). 

Any upstanding citizen would be bereft, except Sam is about as sympathetic as the ill-starred social climber in Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, who drowns his pregnant, working-class girlfriend when someone prettier--and richer--comes along. In this case, Sam receives a hefty settlement for his troubles. He may be homeless, but a motel room serves as an ideal spot for a three-way with his two favorite students.

You can guess their names and whether or not this windfall came about through happenstance. And that might be the end of that, except the characters aren't as clever as they think. That includes Det. Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon), who McNaughton had introduced in the opening sequence when he speaks at a Blue Bay High senior seminar on sexual assault.

Upon learning of the $8.5 million payday, Duquette spies on Kelly and Suzie to determine if they were in on the scam, doing so in a way that suggests he's more of a sleazy voyeur than a dedicated detective. McNaughton rewards him for his efforts when he catches the ladies in a poolside clinch (if Richards has several topless scenes, Campbell's Party of Five contract included a no-nudity clause to which McNaughton adheres). 

Later in the film, Sam and Duquette end up in a hotel room. It's a surprise reveal, so I'll spare the context, but the film's notoriety rests more on this sequence than on the situational lesbianism, which appears in other McNaughton projects, like Showtime's Girls in Prison for which both Ione Sky and Anne Heche went topless (Ashley Judd did the same in Normal Life).

There's a moment when Duquette steps out of the shower and wraps a towel around his waist for a conversation with Sam. Though McNaughton hadn't planned to include a full-frontal shot, he had originally intended to imply a sexual relationship between the two men until the studio balked. 

He got his revenge in an unexpected way: when editor Elena Maganini, who had been working with him for 12 years by that point, noticed that Bacon's towel slipped in one take, that's the one she chose, telling McNaughton that he always featured naked women in his films. It was time to switch things up. 

Consequently, there are two versions of the film, the theatrical and the unrated edition. Arrow's Blu-ray includes both. Alas, Bacon, who produced the picture, was besieged by questions about his nude scene throughout the initial press tour, which must have gotten exhausting, but also proves how rare male nudity was in mainstream American cinema in the 1990s (those who think it's just as bad today probably missed Alex Garland's Men, in which Rory Kinnear spends a significant portion of the film without a stitch of clothing--and not just for a few, blink-and-you-missed-it seconds).  

Wild Things distinguishes itself from previous McNaughton films in another crucial respect, and it's why the film holds up better than I would've expected (I didn't see it upon its original release). If Sam and Suzie are outsiders by Blue Bay standards, they're still white. Duquette's partner, Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega, just off a run on Broadway's Rent) is not. 

Gloria is the smartest person in the film, and that includes Bill Murray's strip-mall lawyer, Kenneth Bowden, who brings some low-key humor to the proceedings. She smells a rat from the start, beginning with Kelly's rape accusation, which she doesn't buy. She continues to believe something is off, but can't prove it, not least because her partner isn't being forthcoming. Even after the rape and murder cases have been solved, the verdicts don't ring true, so she investigates on her own time, concluding that every character, most of whom end up dead, was lying. 

If it wasn't clear at the outset, she's the film's true lead, in a manner of speaking, since we see most events from her perspective. We may also suspect schemes upon schemes, but we don't know exactly what's going on, which McNaughton reveals during the closing credits. For better or for worse, audience testing shaped these reveals when the studio found that viewers liked Suzie and Kenneth the best, so McNaughton filmed a new scene with the two. Though it further untangles the twisted plot, it makes Kenneth look dirty, which he had never intended. In a sign of the times, Columbia gave McNaughton $890,000 to shoot this extraneous scene.  

All told, Wild Things is a product of a different time, and though it may seem like a stretch to describe it as a personal project, I don't believe it was merely the "sex and violence" that attracted McNaughton, but the idea of lower-class people struggling--and failing--to join the upper class.

As McNaughton notes in interviews, including Arrow's Blu-ray exclusive, he grew up on Chicago's South Side. It was never a given that he would become a Hollywood director, and there's a thread running through his work of the relatively disadvantaged trying to better themselves through legitimate means before turning to crime out of desperation--and paying the price. If he has sympathy for these people, and I believe that he does, it's because he knows the system is rigged against them. 

As for Gloria, Blue Bay's hoi polloi may never fully accept her, but she has one trait that sets her apart in ways that go beyond the physical: she doesn't care. She's the best kind of detective, because she isn't driven by anger or agenda. She just wants to get at the truth, and so she does. In a world of churning immorality, she's the film's calm, moral center.

Though Wild Things concludes with one not-born-rich character literally sailing off into the sunset with their ill-gotten gains, Gloria remains with her feet on the ground, more cynical about her adopted town perhaps, but thoroughly uncorrupted by all the secrets and lies she has uncovered. 

Notably, she has even stopped straightening her hair, a suggestion that she's more fundamentally herself than before. There's no point in trying to fit in with people don't see you for who you are, so why bother? Life's too short.


Wild Things is on Blu-ray via Arrow Video and streaming through the usual pay operators. Images: Geoffrey Lapid (Matt Dillon), Bloody Disgusting (Michael Rooker), Film Affinity (Robert De Niro), Eighties Kids (Dillon and Denise Richards), Poseidon's Underworld (Dillon and Kevin Bacon), and Creepy Catalog and 10k Bullets (Daphne Rubin-Vega).  

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Terence Davies’ Benediction: The Poetry, Passion, and Pacifism of Siegfried Sassoon

BENEDICTION 
(Terence Davies, 2022, UK, 136 minutes) 

Terence Davies, 76, has made only nine features in 33 years. 

His first, 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives, drew on his working-class childhood in Liverpool. His latest, Benediction, is less explicitly autobiographical, and yet it's a portrait of an artist who fears, in his later years, that he hasn't received sufficient recognition for the fruits of his labors. That artist, poet Siegfried Sassoon, is also queer and Catholic, so it's hard not to see the parallels with Davies (though he renounced Catholicism decades ago).  

The young Sassoon (played by Jack Lowden, most recently of the excellent spy series Slow Horses) only gets to enjoy a brief moment of unalloyed happiness, at a performance of Igor Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" in 1914, before Davies plunges him into the hell of World War I. Instead of recreating battle sequences, the director uses black-and-white archival footage, much as he did in his collage-style ode to Liverpool, 2008's Of Time and the City.

Sassoon's voiceover draws from his poems and letters. 

After losing his brother, with whom he had enjoyed that Stravinsky concert, and suffering an injury serious enough to remove him from the front, he decides he's seen enough. He writes a letter to his commanding officers stating that he won't return to fight a war that Great Britain is prolonging purely for reasons of "aggression and conquest," leading to hundreds of thousands of fatalities and debilitating injuries. He's willing to accept the consequences of his actions, no matter how dire. Instead of a court martial, however, they send him to a hospital in Scotland for soldiers suffering from "nervous disorders," a more polite term for shell shock. 

The experiences of Sassoon and his fellow patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital formed the entirety of Gillies MacKinnon's 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker's Regeneration, which I fear has been lost to the mists of time, despite fine performances from Jonny Lee Miller as a young lieutenant and Jonathan Pryce as psychiatrist Capt. Rivers (in an interesting coincidence, Pryce plays Lowden's grandfather, a retired MI-5 agent, on Slow Horses). 

In Davies' film, Sassoon finds a sympathetic ear in Capt. Rivers (a very good Ben Daniels), who admires his poetry and has no intention of transforming him--or any patient--into a martyr for the cause. When Sassoon refers to "the love that dare not speak its name," Rivers reacts with empathy. "You're not alone in that respect," he says softly. The two men would remain friends for life.  

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon also meets fellow poet Wildred Owen (Matthew Tennyson, a real-life descendent of poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson) with whom he forms a bond. When Wilfred announces that he's been cleared to return to the front, Sassoon is heartbroken. They will not see each other again. 

If Sassoon's affair with Owen appeared to be chaste, he enters into a passionate, tempestuous relationship with composer and Lodger star Ivor Novello (a delightfully bitchy Jeremy Irvine). His brand of popular music may seem gouache to Sassoon's refined tastes--much like Terence Davies, he prefers classical--but the heart wants what the heart wants. Sassoon's wayward heart also wants Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), who will prove equally challenging.  

Sassoon's artistic companions include Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale from The Deep Blue Sea) and poet Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams). Though Davies doesn't mention it, Sitwell fell in love with him. She won't be the only woman to succumb to his charms. When it comes time for him to start living like a heterosexual man, as gay men of his class tended to do, he leaves his former life behind, though the ghosts of old lovers will haunt his days. 

Instead of a strictly chronological telling, Davies alternates between the young Sassoon and the older man of the 1960s (a pinched Peter Capaldi, miles away from his comedic performances). In these shorter sequences, which occur mainly towards the end, the light appears to have gone out of his eyes.

As the young Sassoon, Lowden is terrific. In fact, I haven't seen him give a bad performance yet. He's particularly persuasive as a barrister defending a restauranteur in Mangrove, part of Steve McQueen's very fine 2020 Small Axe series. All told, he's chosen his parts wisely and well, a pattern that recalls Tom Hiddleston, who starred in Davies's 2011 Terence Rattigan adaptation, The Deep Blue Sea, which also involved a troubled ex-soldier. 

Unusually, Benediction is the rare film about a writer that never actually shows him writing. 

Davies is more interested in Sassoon's relationships and how they shaped him. And in the Great War, the source of a devastating trauma from which he would never fully recover. Davies almost, but not quite, suggests that it might have been preferable for Sassoon to have died in battle, like the ever-young Wildred Owen, than to age into a haunted, embittered old man.

I couldn't say whether Terence Davies is haunted or embittered, but I've always assumed that the long gaps between his films indicates a difficulty in getting them made. I sincerely hope Benediction isn't his final film, but if it is, he'll be going out with as much style and grace as he came in.  


Images from Flickering Myth (Jack Lowden), Slant (Liverpool in Of Time and the City), Distractify (Gary Oldman and Lowden in Slow Horses), DP Nicola Daley (Lowden and Matthew Tennyson and Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams), and HITC (Lowden as Ian Macdonald in Mangrove).  

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Agatha Christie on Screen in the 1980s: Guy Hamilton's Glittering Evil Under the Sun

EVIL UNDER THE SUN 
(Guy Hamilton, UK, rated PG, 117 minutes) 

By relocating Agatha Christie's 1941 novel Evil Under the Sun from the South of England to an Adriatic Sea island, director Guy Hamilton makes the title more literal than ever: there's plenty of sun and an abundance of evil. 

The four-time James Bond filmmaker's 1982 feature followed three previous Christie adaptations, including 1978's Death on the Nile, featuring some of the same actors, that sparked an Agatha Christie-on-screen resurgence. 

Peter Ustinov, who would assume the role six times, plays the sleuth as an avuncular sort who stands in opposition to David Suchet's reserved take on the long-running ITV/PBS series and the Oscar-nominated Albert Finney's stylized version in Sidney Lumet's 1974 Murder on the Orient Express

Hired by industrialist Sir Horace Blatt (This Sporting Life's Colin Blakely) in 1937 to find a missing diamond, Poirot is enjoying a working holiday at actress-turned-hotelier Daphne Castle's seaside resort when showgirl-turned-actress Arlena Maxwell (a slinky Diana Rigg) turns up dead. With coaxing from Daphne (Maggie Smith, reuniting with Ustinov after Death on the Nile), Poirot springs into action to figure out which of the glittering guests did the deed. After all, each had motive. 

Before covering the aftermath, Hamilton, who took on Christie's The Mirror Crack'd in 1980, first establishes the problematic perimeters of Arlena's life. Preening writer Rex (Roddy McDowall) has been toiling away on her biography when she declares that she won't sign the release agreement. 

Daphne, a former king's mistress with whom she trades bon mots, isn't especially fond of her, and Arlena's put-upon husband, Kenneth (Denis Quilley, who previously appeared in Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express), feels neglected as she spends all of her time with Patrick (Excalibur's Nicholas Clay), a Latin instructor who parades around in revealing swim trunks. 

Since Arlena and Patrick are so flagrant with their affections, everyone knows about the affair, including Patrick's self-pitying wife, Christine (Jane Birkin, back for more after Death on the Nile), who wears hula hoop-sized hats and ankle-length caftans to shield her skin from the sun, and Arlena's mopey stepdaughter, Linda (Emily Hone), who snaps at everyone.

Other guests include producers Odell and Myra Gardener (James Mason and Sylvia Miles), who aim to cast Arlena in their new play, and Sir Blatt, who arrives later. Beyond the central mystery, a convoluted affair both entertaining and preposterous, the film doubles as a tourist board tribute to Hamilton's Majorca hometown with steep cliffs rising out of cerulean waters. 

Anthony Powell's go-for-broke costume design also rivals anything on Dallas or Dynasty as the ladies swan about in jewels, sequins, exotic animal prints, and linebacker-wide shoulder pads. Even the filigreed and curlicued desserts and hors d'oeuvres look like something from out of Dr. Suess's most extravagant imaginings.

Against all expectations, though, Hamilton's diversion didn't live up to box office expectations, but it's a fun romp enlivened by game performances, music by Cole Porter, and a quotable screenplay from Sleuth's Anthony Shaffer with an uncredited assist from Crimes of Passion's Barry Sandler.

With Agatha Christie back in vogue by way of Kenneth Branagh's recent adaptations, the time is ripe for rediscovery, not least because Rian Johnson has cited it as an influence on his hit 2019 whodunit Knives Out for which he has been working on the first of several planned sequels. 

Blu-ray extras include a vintage featurette, trailers for co-producers John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin's other Christie adaptations, and chatty commentary from Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. 

Evil Under the Sun is more a product of the expansive time it was made than the more austere time it was written, and that's a big part of its appeal: the 1980s in full, indulgent flower.  


Evil Under the Sun (Special Edition) is available on Blu-ray and streaming via Kino Lorber. Images from Victoria Dowd (Diana Rigg), Jared Mobarak (Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot), MUBI (Peter Ustinov, Nicholas Clay, and Maggie Smith), and Pinterest (Jane Birkin and Nicholas Clay).  

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